/Opioid-Addiction Litigation Heads for Complex Trial

Opioid-Addiction Litigation Heads for Complex Trial


CLEVELAND—Drug companies and plaintiffs attorneys on Sunday appeared to be at an impasse in talks to settle lawsuits over the opioid epidemic, laying the ground for a trial that is part of what has been called the largest and most complex civil case in the nation’s history.

Lawyers say settlement discussions have hit a snag over how much money companies are willing to pay and how it would be distributed among state, city and county governments. The lawyers were attempting to negotiate a comprehensive settlement valued as high as $48 billion that would call off the trial and resolve thousands of opioid lawsuits.

A last-minute settlement could still be reached, as conversations continued Sunday. But if no agreement is reached, a trial nearly two years in the making will start Monday, putting the effects of the opioid crisis on full display.

The jury trial in front of U.S. District Judge

Dan Polster

will pit two Ohio counties against players up and down the prescription drug supply chain. For those who haven’t followed every twist and turn in the case, here is a look at the parties involved and what is at stake.

Who are the plaintiffs?

Widespread use of legal and illegal opioids has ravaged many communities in America, killing at least 400,000 people in the U.S. since 1999. That sobering reality has led virtually every state and more than 2,500 cities, counties, Native American tribes, hospitals and others to file opioid-crisis lawsuits seeking to blame drugmakers and distributors for fueling the problem. The majority of the lawsuits have been consolidated in federal court in Cleveland in front of Judge Polster. State attorneys general, meanwhile, have largely pursued cases in their own state courts.

Monday’s trial will test the claims of Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties, which were selected by Judge Polster to serve as a test case to help guide the rest of the lawsuits centralized in front of him.

A couple thousand cities and counties have filed lawsuits over the opioid epidemic, along with almost every state and two territories, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

State/territory hasn’t sued

Chicago was one of the first local governments to file a lawsuit.

The first trial in federal court is for Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio, which has the nation’s second-highest opioid overdose rate.

West Virginia was the first state to sue distributors, and has the highest opioid-overdose rate in the nation.

Oklahoma was the first state attorney general case to go to trial, in May.

Note: Locations based on lawsuits filed in federal court as of Aug. 14. In cases where a county and a city in the county were filed in the same lawsuit, locations are shown at the county level. Puerto Rico’s municipalities are classified at the county level.

Sources: Pacer (lawsuits); National Institute on Drug Abuse (overdose rates)

Vivien Ngo and Jessica Wang/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

A couple thousand cities and counties have filed lawsuits over the opioid epidemic, along with almost every state and two territories, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

State/territory hasn’t sued

Chicago was one of the first local governments to file a lawsuit.

The first trial in federal court is for Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio, which has the nation’s second-highest opioid overdose rate.

West Virginia was the first state to sue distributors, and has the highest opioid-overdose rate in the nation.

Oklahoma was the first state attorney general case to go to trial, in May.

Note: Locations based on lawsuits filed in federal court as of Aug. 14. In cases where a county and a city in the county were filed in the same lawsuit, locations are shown at the county level. Puerto Rico’s municipalities are classified at the county level.

Sources: Pacer (lawsuits); National Institute on Drug Abuse (overdose rates)

Vivien Ngo and Jessica Wang/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

A couple thousand cities and counties have filed lawsuits over the opioid epidemic, along with almost every state and two territories, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

State/territory hasn’t sued

The first trial in federal court is for Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio, which has the nation’s second-highest opioid overdose rate.

Chicago was one of the first local governments to file a lawsuit.

West Virginia was the first state to sue distributors, and has the highest opioid-overdose rate in the nation.

Oklahoma was the first state attorney general case to go to trial, in May.

Note: Locations based on lawsuits filed in federal court as of Aug. 14. In cases where a county and a city in the county were filed in the same lawsuit, locations are shown at the county level. Puerto Rico’s municipalities are classified at the county level.

Sources: Pacer (lawsuits); National Institute on Drug Abuse (overdose rates)

Vivien Ngo and Jessica Wang/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

A couple thousand cities and counties have filed lawsuits over the opioid epidemic, along with almost every state and two territories, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

State/territory hasn’t sued

Chicago was one of the first local governments to file a lawsuit.

The first trial in federal court is for Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio, which has the nation’s second-highest opioid overdose rate.

West Virginia was the first state to sue distributors, and has the highest opioid-overdose rate in the nation.

Oklahoma was the first state attorney general case to go to trial, in May.

Note: Locations based on lawsuits filed in federal court as of Aug. 14. In cases where a county and a city in the county were filed in the same lawsuit, locations are shown at the county level. Puerto Rico’s municipalities are classified at the county level.

Sources: Pacer (lawsuits); National Institute on Drug Abuse (overdose rates)

Vivien Ngo and Jessica Wang/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When did these lawsuits get filed?

The current round of lawsuits started in earnest in 2017 and have been brought with regularity since then. Government entities have sued drugmakers before; earlier rounds of lawsuits were filed a decade earlier against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP, and a few communities and states launched lawsuits starting around 2012.

Who are they suing?

On the other side of the litigation are companies that make, distribute and dispense opioid painkillers. While some of them aren’t household names, many have deep pockets and large market caps.

Plaintiffs broadly allege that drugmakers marketed their drugs too aggressively and played down their addictive risks, while distributors weren’t stringent enough in blocking suspicious orders. The companies deny the claims and say they followed industry regulations.

The number of companies going to trial Monday has been slimmed down as the two Ohio counties reach settlements. The payouts only get them out of this one trial, however. The companies continue to face hundreds or thousands of other lawsuits.

The remaining companies are

Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.

,

Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.,

McKesson Corp.,

AmerisourceBergen Corp.

and

Cardinal Health Inc.

Purdue Pharma, once considered the biggest target in the litigation, filed for bankruptcy in September and won’t be at the trial.

Unsettled

Several manufacturers have settled with Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties, and only one is set to still face trial on Monday.

Company still facing trial

Teva

Pharmaceutical

Industries

Where they stand, settlement value

Company reaches

a settlement

Many large distributors will also face trial, while claims against smaller distributors that were sued by the Ohio counties were dismissed.

 

And many pharmacies are not a part of the Ohio trial, but still face other lawsuits.

*Market cap data not available for private companies.

Note: Market cap values are as of Oct. 18, 2019.

Several manufacturers have settled with Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties, and only one is set to still face trial on Monday.

Company still facing trial

Teva

Pharmaceutical

Industries

Where they stand, settlement value

Company reaches

a settlement

Many large distributors will also face trial, while claims against smaller distributors that were sued by the Ohio counties were dismissed.

 

And many pharmacies are not a part of the Ohio trial, but still face other lawsuits.

*Market cap data not available for private companies.

Note: Market cap values are as of Oct. 18, 2019.

Several manufacturers have settled with Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties, and only one is set to still face trial on Monday.

Company still facing trial

Teva

Pharmaceutical

Industries

Where they stand, settlement value

Company reaches

a settlement

Many large distributors will also face trial, while claims against smaller distributors that were sued by the Ohio counties were dismissed.

 

And many pharmacies are not a part of the Ohio trial, but still face other lawsuits.

*Market cap data not available for private companies.

Note: Market cap values are as of Oct. 18, 2019.

Several manufacturers have settled with Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties, and only one is set to still face trial on Monday.

Company still facing trial

Where they stand,

settlement

Company

reaches a

settlement

Teva

Pharmaceutical

Industries

Many large distributors will also face trial, while claims against smaller distributors that were sued by the Ohio counties were dismissed.

 

And many pharmacies are not a part of the

Ohio trial, but still face other lawsuits.

*Market cap data not available for private companies.

Note: Market cap values are as of Oct. 18, 2019.

What will happen at the trial?

Lawyers for the two Ohio counties will present evidence they say shows the drugmakers and distributors are liable for the opioid crisis, including details culled from some 450 depositions and 150 million pages of documents they have gathered through the litigation process over the past two years. Witnesses called to the bench are likely to include experts on the opioid crisis, people personally affected by opioid addiction and representatives from the defendant companies.

The local lawsuits have been driven by a legion of contingency-fee plaintiffs’ lawyers who have collectively taken on every major consumer-protection case from tobacco to asbestos to auto recalls to deadly medical devices. Even with their collective wisdom, they say this case is the most complex they have ever tackled.

Judge Polster has set aside until Dec. 13 for evidence to be presented to the jury and given each side 100 hours. Some of the companies say that isn’t nearly enough time to defend their case, and have argued in court filings that the limits make it impossible “to mount the complete defense to which it is entitled in a case of virtually unprecedented complexity.”

The manufacturers argue they legally marketed and sold prescription painkillers that are federally regulated and serve a crucial need for patients. The massive drug distributors, meanwhile, say that they also complied with federal regulations and that they were middlemen sending high-demand drugs to pharmacies.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster has given each side 100 hours to present evidence.


Photo:

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Will state attorneys general be involved?

No. This trial is exclusively in the cases of the two Ohio counties, and is separate from the cases that the states are bringing. That has created some tension, with Ohio’s attorney general unsuccessfully seeking to block the trial from happening at all under the argument that only he has the power to hold these companies accountable.

So far, one state has taken its opioid claims to trial, in Oklahoma.

Johnson & Johnson

was the only defendant in that case after two other drugmakers settled, and is fighting a $572 million verdict a judge issued in August.

Summit County is one of two test cases set to be heard in front of Judge Polster.


Photo:

Angie Wang/Associated Press

What bearing does this trial have on the rest of the litigation?

In the days leading up to the trial, five companies—McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Johnson & Johnson—were in talks with both state attorneys general and the local governments to reach a comprehensive settlement valued as high as $48 billion that would have not only called off the trial but resolved all of the opioid lawsuits against them.

Those talks broke down heading into the weekend, with state attorneys general laying the blame on demands from contingency-fee lawyers representing local governments, and those lawyers pointing to the defendants for not agreeing to give enough money.

Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen put out a joint statement Saturday saying they were disappointed in the outcome of Friday’s talks and went into discussions “in hopes of furthering a global settlement that would provide immediate relief to states and local communities.”

Paul Farrell,

an attorney for the local governments, countered that there is nothing immediate about the proposed settlement, part of which would be paid over 18 years, and that his clients don’t want to see the money go directly to the state attorneys general. “The counties and cities refuse to allow the money to be directed anywhere other than abatement of the epidemic,” he said.

In theory, a settlement could still be reached in the middle of trial.

But until that happens, the plaintiffs are ready to go. They have been preparing for months in a war room set up in an old post office building in Cleveland, located in between the downtown courthouse and the Ritz Carlton where all of the lawyers stay when they come to town.

As

Paul Hanly,

an attorney for the plaintiffs, said outside of court on Friday, “We expect the jury and the world to see the extent of wrongdoing by these defendants. And we will try the case for as long as is necessary.”

Write to Sara Randazzo at sara.randazzo@wsj.com

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